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The Gratitude Attitude

This is the season of Thanksgiving, the season of being grateful. As people sit around the holiday table eating the abundance of the past season’s harvest, gratitude is often the main topic of conversation, often in the midst of deep suffering. Even when people don’t feel grateful for the wars, or for the famine, or for the hunger, or the sexual abuse, or the experience of family animosities and absences, or for the injustices that they experience, we are challenged by the United States culture to have an “attitude of gratitude.”

I often wonder about this subtle cultural demand of gratitude when there is so much suffering in the world. Do I have to ignore that suffering? I ask myself all kinds of questions:

How can we be grateful for the absence of a loved one due to death or gun violence or a drunken driver? How can the women who have been abused (physically, emotionally, or sexually) feel gratitude for that dehumanizing experience? Or how can the men who abused those women or children feel grateful for having done wrongful things that hurt others and may have permanently destroyed their own reputation?

How can flood or hurricane victims be thankful for their houses being totally demolished by the winds and rain? Or how can veterans who return from war with severe PTSD accept with gratitude the horrors of war?

Yoga philosophy, and many religions as well, don’t easily answer these questions. According to yoga, the attitude of gratitude comes from a deeper awareness; namely, that although on the surface suffering and evil make life miserable and even abominable, there is a purpose to it all. Even in the Bhagavad Gita, when Arjuna despondently complains to Krishna, asking him why he has to go to war against his step-brothers and kinfolk, Krishna says that he must realize that there is more to this life than we can see. There is a divine reason to all of this and we must fulfill that divine purpose. That is our duty!

But that answer really sounds cruel! It sounds quite insane, really! Or at least simplistic! Or it sounds like God is really cruel.

And yet, why are some people grateful for all the pain they have in their lives? Why are some people not shaken to the core and not bitter and resentful for all the suffering that befalls them? It is because they have an “attitude of gratitude” for life itself, realizing that they don’t always understand why things happen the way that they do. As God says to Job in the Hebrew Scriptures: “It is a mystery and not for you to understand.”

Maybe a little story can clarify this point:

Once upon a time, there was this rancher in Australia who owned a large horse farm and had a wonderful son who helped raise and train the horses. One day, the foreman came running into the ranch house, saying: “Bad news, sir, a wild stallion came out of the hills and stirred up all the horses so much that they broke through the corral gate and ran off with the stallion.” The rancher said, “Good news, bad news, who knows?”

The next day, the foreman again barged into the ranch house, saying, “Good news, sir, the stallion came back to the corral with all the horses and I was able to lock them all up in the corral.” The rancher said, “Good news, bad news, who knows?”

Later that day, the foreman again ran into the ranch house, saying, “Bad news, sir, your son was thrown from the stallion as he was attempting to break the horse and broke his leg.” The rancher again said, “Good news, bad news, who knows?”

A few days later, a Cavalry regiment came to the ranch looking for draftees for the military unit. They could not draft the son because his leg was broken. Again, the rancher said, “Good news, bad news, who knows?”

That’s true! Good news, bad news, we never really know! All we know is that there is some Source of Life, which people call by different names—God or Allah or Yahweh or the Tao—that is in charge of the events of the Universe. Having the attitude (the belief) that the Divine Force of Life, which I refer to as the Divine Mother, is compassionately looking over us and guiding us through the joys and the sorrows of life, makes it possible for me to maintain my gratitude attitude.

The faith-filled attitude of gratitude for that loving being is what I understand at this United States time of Thanksgiving. I do not rejoice over the pain, but know that my Divine Mother always loves and protects me. I believe in her abiding presence and respond by thanking Her for Life and for my opportunity to grow and learn from whatever enters my life.

May you actively know and respond to that loving unfolding of life during this “Thanksgiving Season.”

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